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Review of PLUS ONE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No–parents only!
2019, 99 min., Color
Comedy-drama romance
RLJE Films
Not rated (would be R for drinking, drunkenness, drugs, language, and implied sex)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

This one is for parents only—parents who are fans of romantic comedies but also like to show a little love for indie filmmaking. For best results, save Plus One for a night after the kids have been a real handful and you’re both exhausted and secretly thinking back to how carefree everything was before the first bundle of joy arrived, or even before you got married. Watching Plus One will make you appreciate every last difficult minute you spend with your family.

If this film has an underlying social message, it’s that being single sucks, so single parents be warned. More cautionary tale than standard romantic comedy, Plus One is nonetheless totally aware of the romantic comedy conventions: boy has a meet-cute with girl, they fall in love, they lose each other and realize what they lost, and they get together again, just in time for the happy ending. Because of that genre self-awareness, you know pretty much where this film is headed, without even looking much farther than the premise: Ben (Jack Quaid, who looks a bit like Joel McHale with a beard) and his loud, force-of-nature college friend Alice (Maya Erskine, PEN15), find themselves with 10 weddings to attend over the summer—some his, some hers. To get through them, Alice gets Ben to agree to be each other’s “plus one” to avoid sitting at the singles table (a.k.a. the kids table). So yeah, you fully expect them to get together. More

Review of MISSING LINK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 94 min., Color
Animation
Laika / 20th Century Fox
Rated PG for action peril and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

In announcing Missing Link at Cannes in 2018, the Laika animation CEO crowed, “Missing Link is an artistic and technical wonder. Led by our visionary director Chris Butler, Laika has once again blended fine art, craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology to achieve something we’ve never tried before: a raucous comedy entwined with a swashbuckling epic, underscoring the universal need to find belonging.”

And for a change, it wasn’t just typical Hollywood hype. Missing Link is both visually stunning and richly imagined, and the quirky plot is powered by a blend of physical humor that children will appreciate, as well as allusions and verbal gags that are meant for the adults. But it’s also warm-hearted, with some positive messages embedded in the story. In other words, this a perfect choice for family home movie night—if, that is, your family likes stop-motion animation and the distinctively rendered characters, some of which have harsh angular or pointy features.

I’ll confess to not being a fan of stop-motion animation (often called “Claymation”), but the Laika group has created a film that’s as fluid looking as traditional animation. Producer Arianne Sutner (Kubo and the Two Strings) said in the 2018 announcement that they “created 110 sets with 65 unique locations to achieve the film’s scale, majesty, and geographic beauty.” And again, I couldn’t have described it better. The film includes their inventive takes on Victorian England, the American Old West, Old World Spain, the Tibetan Himalayas, and incredible variations of the natural world that lie in between. Missing Link is one of those films that just leaves you smiling or awestruck every time there’s a set change.

And that’s just the art design and animation. The plot itself may sound far-fetched, but you’re almost immediately sucked into the premise and the film quickly feels like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour road picture adventure, with flashback similarities to the animated Road to El Dorado, and Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Up. It’s a classic pursuit tale where the pursuers are also being pursued.  More

Review of UGLYDOLLS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (but older kids will be bored)
2019, 88 min., Color
Animation
STX / Universal
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

UglyDolls only received a 4.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database and didn’t even merit a notice at Rotten Tomatoes, it was apparently that rotten. But come on, people. There’s a difference between family films (ones aimed at adults that children can also enjoy) and films that are just for kids. Ugly Dolls is the latter, and you can’t fault them for not trying to be something they’re not. Which, coincidentally, is one of this animated film’s themes.

Critics have complained that it’s one long commercial for the Hasbro UglyDolls, with a new line of movie-related characters added to those that debuted in 2001. But so many films have product placement these days that it’s almost an unfair charge. It seems more appropriate to talk about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strength #1: The Themes
Yes, there are other movies that are better at celebrating individuality and people with imperfections, but it’s hard to find fault with an animated film about a bunch of plush toys who, instead of being sent along the assembly line to their eventual “homes” in the world with children, get chuted down to Uglyville, a subterranean city full of misfit toys. And one of those rejects, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), celebrates how great Uglyville is but still dreams of one day leaving for an even better world she believes exists, a world where toys become beloved companions and possessions of children. Love who you are: You’re not ugly, you’re distinctive, is one of the film’s big themes, and one that children can’t hear too much these days when everyone it seems is calling names or finding fault. Cooperation, teamwork, loyalty, and inclusion are other obvious themes as Moxy’s friends accompany her up the chute to explore that other world.  More

TRANSIT (2018) DVD

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
2018, 101 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not Rated (would be PG for adult situations and some language)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: German and French Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Transit isn’t rated, there’s technically nothing in it that would prevent entire families from watching. There’s not much in the way of language, no nudity or sex, limited alcohol and smoking, and the closest thing to violence are forcible arrests, mostly in the background.

But this isn’t the kind of film an American family typically watches. The language is German and French, with English subtitles. It’s a slow-moving drama that eschews the Hollywood plot arc for a structure that allows viewers to appreciate the directionless predicament of trying to maintain any kind of relationship in a country led by an oppressive regime. This film also embraces anachronism, which can be just a little too artsy for some viewers. Though Transit is based on an Anna Seghers novel that takes place in Marseilles, France in 1940 soon after the Nazi occupation, director Christian Petzold chose to set the film in an unspecified present. The Germans are called “fascists,” not “Nazis,” and while there’s talk of rounding up Jews, there isn’t a Nazi uniform in sight. Petzold said he wanted to blur the novel’s setting so that the issues would resonate with current world events.

And you know what? That blurring is a big reason why parents with older children might like to give this film a shot. Transit does resonate, and in an uncomfortable way if you happen to be among the 59 percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s immigrant detainment camps and expansive ICE raids. There are characters here that viewers can identify with that can help them understand how common it is to be “illegal” in a country and how frightening it is when the government decides to launch a purge. Illegals aren’t just displaced physically. There’s also a mental and emotional dislocation that occurs. Add the complications that accompany almost any relationship, whether family, friend, or significant other, and it makes for all sorts of issues to discuss after watching the film together.

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Review of SHAZAM! (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (really!)
2019, 132 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

In Shazam!, a teen foster kid turns into a fully costumed adult superhero with a lightning symbol on his chest every time he shouts “SHAZAM”—the name of an ancient wizard who passed along his power to the lad because he was “pure of heart.”

Except that in the early going we watch this Philly kid trick cops into a store, lock them in, steal the cop car, and, adding insult to injury, eat the driver’s steak sandwich and fries. Needless to say, Billy (mostly played by Asher Angel) has been in and out of foster homes for many years because of such delinquent behavior. But the message here comes across loud and clear: kids who do bad things can still be good, and let’s give a shout-out to all the foster parents out there who give them a chance. At one point we even see a close-up of his new foster’s car and the bumper sticker “I’m a foster mom—what’s your superpower?” Another theme that emerges is “Fosters are family,” something that’s reinforced by a third act team effort that’s needed to beat the evil supervillain.

But you might want to pay attention to that PG-13 rating, which, these days, means children 10 and older. The film gets off to a slow start, for one thing. The first-act set-up can seem both confusing and tedious to younger viewers because it intercuts the villain’s childhood back story with current attempts by foster-kid Billy to locate the mother he lost at a carnival when he wandered off many years ago. But just as Billy has a dual identity—kid and adult—this film at times seems great for kids, while there are other times when those kids had better leave the room . . . or be traumatized.

Truly frightening things happen when the seven deadly sins are personified as real monsters that do some really monstrous things—like biting people’s heads off. And the supervillain (Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) is pretty darned menacing as the bitter adult version of a child once summoned by the wizard, but rejected . . . and by his father, as well, who blames him for a car accident that’s graphic enough that small children might fear everyone has been killed or seriously mutilated.  More

Review of BECOMING ASTRID (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 123 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for nudity, drunkenness, and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Swedish Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Astrid Lindgren wrote more than 30 children’s books and is the fourth most translated children’s writer in the world. To American audiences, her best-known creation was Pippi Longstocking, born one day when Lindgren’s daughter was home from school sick and asking for a story to help her feel better.

The Swedish-language (with English subtitles) biopic Becoming Astrid implies that the film’s narrative will reveal how Lindgren became one of the world’s most beloved children’s book authors, and that fans of her books will be able to connect more deeply with her after seeing the this 2018 drama. Well, they can . . . but not as directly as one might imagine.

There’s no way to describe the essence of the film without spoilers, but I’ll warn everyone right now that Becoming Astrid is for adults only. There is frontal female nudity and a plot that revolves around an illicit affair between a 16-year-old girl and a man her father’s age. This biopic begins with a 90-something Lindgren opening birthday wishes from thousands of readers worldwide, with one fourth grade class sending an audio tape that she plays. From time to time as we watch a flashback and presumed recollections of a significant period in the author’s life, circa 1924-31, we hear a voiceover of that tape, reminding us of the influence that Lindgren had on young people. Without that tape, there’s no connection between what happens on the screen and the success that Lindgren would become.

There are many reasons to watch this film. It’s beautifully shot and directed, and fans of author biopics get a compelling narrative that seems to run absolutely counter to expectations one might have for the life story of a beloved children’s book author—a film in which we can perceive a change in Lindgren’s demeanor. Early on she’s the ugly duckling who’s never asked to dance, but gets on the dance floor anyway, crazily moving so that her two long braids fly all over the place. She’s a good speller who had an essay about her family’s farm in Smaland published in the local paper—one reason why the editor hires her as an intern/secretary/writer. But throughout the course of a life that turns hard, we can see the optimism and energy flag slightly. Later it will reappear and reignite her imagination as she begins to write children’s books, but there is no writing of children’s books in this film. This is the down period in her life, one that no doubt shaped her resolve and explains the bond she feels with children.  More